The first section of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) contains two lengthy descriptions of temptations that a young man should resist and avoid (1:10-19 and 7). The two temptations are recruitment into a robber gang and being enticed by an adulterous wife. I’ve argued before that these are the two perversions of the Dominion Mandate in Genesis 1 which commissions mankind to work and to marry. Both temptations revolve around enjoying wealth that belongs to others.
Looking at the first temptation, Solomon argues that it will lead to captivity and death (similar to his argument about enjoying another man’s wife):
For in vain is a net spread
in the sight of any bird,
but these men lie in wait for their own blood;
they set an ambush for their own lives (Proverbs 1:17–18).
This is a warning that an attempt to gain dominion over others through violence will backfire. One will end up as the trapped animals who are ensnared by men for food.
This argument could be made on the basis of “common sense” (no productive society will put up with violent exploitation forever) or fear of God (he will judge us all). Solomon is probably doing both.
But Solomon is making an additional argument. Consider that the initial temptation is presented as a means of acquiring wealth:
My son, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse” (Proverbs 1:10–14).
Solomon does not think a desire for precious goods is evil.
- “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth” (Proverbs 12:27).
- “Precious treasure and oil are in a wise man’s dwelling, but a foolish man devours it” (Proverbs 21:20).
- “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches” (Proverbs 24:3–4).
The contrast between the foolish and the wise is not that one desires to acquire precious things and the other does not desire to do so. The contrast lies in the means of attaining them. The tempters present robbery as a shortcut to what will otherwise take diligence, patience, and self-restraint. There is also an element of “luck” since Proverbs doesn’t promise that the wise will always be or become wealthy. The tempters present the rewards of riches as a certainty.
So Solomon’s argument is that, however more quickly and certainly you will acquire “precious things” by means of robbery, you will also “acquire,” sooner or later, captivity and death.
But there’s more to Solomon’s warning.
When Solomon speaks for the tempters in chapter 1, it is noteworthy that the first thing they mention is murdering the helpless (vv. 11 & 12), only describing the supposed purpose of the activity afterwards (v. 13 & 14). The tempters are revealing something about themselves that Solomon spells out afterwards:
my son, do not walk in the way with them;
hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil,
and they make haste to shed blood (Proverbs 1:15–16).
Solomon warns against being hasty for wealth (13:11; 20:21; 28:20, 22). But these men are not hasty for riches anymore. They are hasty to kill people. The robbery, that is supposedly the motive for the crime, is really just a rationalization for violence. These people present themselves as engaged in an entrepreneurial venture, but they are really just killers who have found a means of financing their sport.
Presumably, the son has to be warned about the enticements of these sinners, not because he is looking for an excuse to kill people, but because of his anxieties about making a living at a regular job or impatience with the time it takes to acquire wealth. But if he “makes a living” by plunder, Solomon is warning him that he will grow to enjoy his work.
Later, Solomon elaborates on the process:
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evil.
Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;
they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.
For they eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence.
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know over what they stumble (Proverbs 4:14–19).
Wickedness and violence are, to use modern terms, an addiction or a compulsive behavior. A person may begin in a relatively rational manner. He wants good things so much that he takes a seemingly easier and more assured path to them even though it involves sin. But people are “wired” to grow to love what they do, in many instances. Thus, veteran robbers have usually become thrillseekers. Violence ceases to be a means to an end. It becomes an end in itself.
This argument fits with many other proverbs (in the book of Proverbs) and the wider context of the Bible.
Human character development works out as Solomon describes because Adam and Eve were intended to grow as servants and rulers by pursuing the Dominion Mandate in a God-pleasing way. Jesus is an example of the principle. Though morally perfect from the beginning, he became a wiser, even “more obedient,” person.
- “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).
- “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
- God made Jesus “mature through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10b).
- “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made mature…” (Hebrews 5:8, 9).
I have translated as “mature” what most translations render in English as “perfect.” The traditional translation is misleading to the extent that the same word is not traditionally used in Hebrews 5:14—”But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
Jesus pursued his mission according to God’s will and, by that process, was changed. Adam and Eve, likewise, were given a mission that would have changed them. Indeed, their mission as God’s son and daughter was to become more like God.
Tellingly, the author of Hebrews compares the suffering that his readers must endure to a beloved child maturing under a parent’s discipline like Jesus did (Hebrews 12:1-11). He explicitly quotes Proverbs 3:11-12. Submitting to God’s discipline leads to wisdom and maturity.
Cornelus Van Til called this process “self-realization” and summarized the situation this way:
That the ethical ideal for man should be self-realization follows from the central place given him in this universe. … Man was to gather up into the prism of his self-conscious activity all the manifold manifestations of the glory of God in order to make one central self-conscious sacrifice of it all to God.
If man was to perform this, his God-given task, he must himself be a fit instrument for this work. He was made a fit instrument for this work, but he must also make himself an ever better instrument for this work. He must will to develop his intellect in order to grasp more comprehensively the wealth of the manifestation of the glory of God in this world. He must will to be an ever better prophet than he already is. He must will to develop his aesthetic capacity, that is, his capacity of appreciation; he must will to be an even better priest than he already is. Finally, he must will to will the will of God for the whole world; he must become an ever better king than he already is. For this reason then the primary ethical duty of man is self-realization. Through self-realization man makes himself the king of the earth, and if he is truly the king of the earth then God is truly the king of the universe, since it is as God’s creature, as God’s vicegerent, that man must seek to develop himself as king. When man becomes truly the king of the universe the kingdom of God is realized, and when the kingdom of God is realized, God is glorified.
But what then, in more detail, is involved in this goal of self-realization that man must set for himself? We can bring this out by working out the idea expressed above, when we said that man must learn to will the will of God. Man must work out his own will, that is, he must develop his own will first of all. Man’s will needs to become increasingly spontaneousin its reactivity. Man was created so that he spontaneously served God. For this reason he must grow in spontaneity. Whatever God has placed within man by way of activity must also be regarded by him as a capacity to be developed. Man was not created merely with a will to will the will of God. In his heart there was an inmost desire to serve God. But just because man was created with this will, God wants man to develop this will.
In the second place, man’s will needs to become increasingly fixed in its self-determination. In other words, man must needs develop the backbone of his will. Not as though man was created a volitional amoeba, which had to pass through the invertebrate stage before it finally acquired a backbone. Man was created a self. He was the creature of an absolute self and could not be otherwise created than as a self. But for this very reason again man had to develop his self-determination. Man’s God is absolutely self-determinate; man will be God-like in proportion that he becomes self-determining and self-determinate underGod. In proportion that man develops his self-determination does he develop God’s determination or plan for his kingdom on earth. God accomplishes his plans through self-determined characters. An unstable man would be useless in the kingdom of God.
In the third place, man’s will must increase in momentum. Man’s will would naturally increase in momentum in proportion that it increased in spontaneity and self-determinateness. Yet the point of momentum must be separately mentioned. As man approaches his ideal, the realization of the kingdom of God, the area of his activity naturally enlarges itself. Just as the manager of a growing business needs to increase with his business in alertness, stability, and comprehensiveness of decision, so man, with the development of his progress toward his ideal, would have to develop momentum in order to meet his ever increasing responsibility.
I’m not sure of Van Til’s scheme as it relates to prophet, priest, and king, or if his list of different points constitutes different areas of character development rather than different metaphors describing the same thing. But he is undoubtedly right that the mission given to humanity to transform the world is also a mandate to be transformed into more of God’s likeness. Thus, “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.”
But Proverbs indicates that the process works in reverse. To start taking shortcuts or making other perverse decisions, even for permissible ends, will put you on the path to become a monster. People who engage in robbery, and get away with it for while, will grow to love doing it and to love the sins they have to commit to gain wealth. Your acceptable goals will give way to perverse desires. And those desires will become so powerful that you will find it hard to control them even when they will obviously cause you harm.
Thus, for example, Solomon isn’t optimistic that a person who has developed a temper will learn to control it because of negative consequences. The pleasure of anger is a trap:
- “A man of great wrath will pay the penalty, for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again” (Proverbs 19:19).
- “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24–25).
Consider how Solomon confronts the temptation to adultery and fornication. Leading up to the scenario he describes in chapter 7, Solomon promotes wisdom as protection against the temptations of the adulteress in chapter 6. Thus:
For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light,
and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life,
to preserve you from the evil woman,
from the smooth tongue of the adulteress.
Do not desire her beauty in your heart,
and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes;
for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread,
but a married woman hunts down a precious life (Proverbs 6:23–26).
Solomon knows that a prostitute, though relatively cheap compared to an adulteress, is also a forbidden woman. Solomon wants the young man to be a faithful husband (Proverbs 5:15-19), not a user of sex workers, which will bring a man under God’s judgment (5:20-21). But the lure of the adulteress is especially powerful. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Proverbs 7 seems like an invitation to a kind of class warfare, driven by covetousness of status and wealth at least as much as by the offer of sex.
But suppose a young man gets such offers and enjoys such dalliances. What happens when he gets too old and ugly to attract the attention of bored, rich housewives? Life without such pleasures will probably seem too drab. He will have to pay for them. And what are the chances that he’ll be able to restrain himself to an affordable budget? Not good. “He who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth” (Proverbs 29:3).
Solomon points out the relative risk of an adulteress to a prostitute to get the son to think about what he’s doing, but not to commend the latter option. Why be more attracted to a high-risk temptation if it is really just a desire for sex?
Another example is what Solomon says about sloth. “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (Proverbs 21:25). Everyone values leisure. There is nothing wrong with that desire. But if one habitually enjoys more leisure than one can afford, then even when it is clear that the practice is causing you real harm, it will often be too difficult to break the habit. Rather than work at change, a person will rationalize his destructive behavior. “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly” (Proverbs 26:16).
Many places in the Bible warn of God’s judgment on sin. Proverbs is no exception. But Proverbs seems to be also concerned with how sinful choices and negligence can make us into degraded, useless human beings. Solomon shows a consistent concern, starting with the first warning in chapter 1, for how choosing sin can result in weakened, warped slaves rather than powerful, free, men.
Mark Horne holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary and is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and writes at www.SolomonSays.net.